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Hamilton’s account of the Golden Fleece comes from Apollonius of Rhodes, a Greek poet from about 300 b.c. Athamas, a king, gets tired of his first wife, Nephele, and marries a second, Ino. Ino wants Nephele’s son, Phrixus, out of the way so her own son can inherit the throne. Hermes sends a flying golden ram to rescue Phrixus and his sister, Helle, who falls off the ram and dies. Phrixus safely reaches the land of Colchis, where he sacrifices the ram to Zeus and gives its skin—the Golden Fleece—to Colchis’s king, Aetes.
Meanwhile, a man named Pelias has usurped the throne of Phrixus’s uncle, a Greek king. Jason, the deposed king’s son, grows up and returns to reclaim the throne. En route to Pelias’s kingdom, Jason loses a sandal. Pelias is afraid when he sees Jason approach, as an oracle has told him that he will be overthrown by a stranger wearing only one sandal. The wicked Pelias pretends to acquiesce but says that the gods have told him that the Golden Fleece must be retrieved for the kingdom first. This is a lie—Pelias assumes that anyone sent on that dangerous journey will never come back. Jason, intrigued by the challenge, assembles a remarkable group of heroes to help him, including Hercules, Theseus, Peleus, and Orpheus. Their ship is named the Argo, so the group is called the Argonauts.
The Argonauts face many challenges on the way to Colchis. They first meet the fierce women of Lemnos, who have killed their men, but find them atypically kind. Hercules leaves the crew, and the Argonauts meet an oracle, Phineus. The sons of Boreas, the North Wind, help Phineus by driving off some terrible Harpies who foul his food whenever he tries to eat. Phineus gives the Argonauts information that helps them pass safely through their next challenge—the Symplegades, gigantic rocks that smash together when a ship sail through them. After narrowly avoiding conflict with the Amazons, bloody women warriors, and passing by the chained Prometheus, the Argonauts finally arrive at Colchis.
Though more trials await here, Hera and Aphrodite help Jason. Like Pelias, Aetes pretends to want to give Jason the Fleece but first demands that he complete two tasks that are designed to kill him. Aphrodite sends Cupid to make Aetes’s daughter, a witch named Medea, fall in love with Jason and help him through the tasks. The first challenge is to yoke two fierce magical bulls with hooves of bronze and breath of fire, and Medea gives Jason an ointment that makes him invincible. The second task is to use the bulls to plow a field and sow it with dragon’s teeth, which causes armed men to spring up from the earth and attack Jason. Medea tells him that if he throws a rock in the middle of the armed men, they will attack each other, not him. After Jason’s success, Aetes plots to kill the Argonauts at night, but Medea again intercedes, warning Jason and enabling him to steal the Fleece by putting its guardian serpent to sleep. Medea joins the Argonauts and flees back to Greece. On the way home, she commits the ultimate act of love for Jason: to help evade the ship’s pursuers, she kills her own brother, Apsyrtus.
On the way home, the Argonauts pass more challenges, including safely navigating Scylla, the dreaded rock; Charybdis, the whirlpool; and Talus, the giant bronze man. Upon returning, Jason finds that Pelias has killed his father and that his mother has died of sadness. Jason and Medea plot revenge—Medea convinces Pelias’s daughters that they will restore Pelias to youth if they kill him, chop him up, and put the pieces into her magic pot. Out of love for their father, they slice him to bits, but Medea leaves the city, taking her magic pot with her after first restoring Jason’s father to life.
Medea and Jason have two children, but Jason leaves out of personal ambition to marry the daughter of the king of Corinth, who banishes Medea and her children. Infuriated by the unsympathetic Jason, Medea enacts a terrible revenge, sending her two sons with a beautiful magic robe as a gift for Jason’s new bride. When the girl dons the robe, it bursts into flame, consuming her and the king as he rushes to her. Medea then kills the two sons she had with Jason and flies away on a magic chariot. This tragic final chapter in the story of Jason and Medea is the subject of Euripides’ play, Medea.
Here Phaëthon lies, who drove the Sun-god's car.
Greatly he failed, but he had greatly dared.
See Important Quotations Explained
Born on earth, Phaëthon learns that his father is the Sun, so he seeks him out. The Sun, joyous at seeing his son, swears by the river Styx—an unbreakable oath—to grant him any wish. Phaëthon asks to fly the Sun’s chariot across the sky. Though the Sun foresees the horrible end, his oath binds him to grant the wish. Phaëthon cannot handle the chariot’s wild horses, who rage and set the world on fire. To halt the destruction, Jove kills Phaëthon with a thunderbolt. The magical invisible Eridanus River puts out the flames.
A beautiful and strong youth, Bellerophon wants more than anything to possess the winged horse Pegasus. He sleeps in Athena’s temple one night, and upon waking finds a golden bridle that enables him to tame the horse. Bellerophon rejects the infatuated wife of a king named Proetus, who accuses him of wrongdoing and sends him on a quest with the intent to kill him. He kills the Chimera, a monster with a lion’s head, goat’s body, and serpent’s tail; defeats the fierce Solymi warriors and the Amazons; but he finally goes too far by trying to use Pegasus to fly up to Olympus. The wise Pegasus bucks Bellerophon, who spends the rest of his days a lonely wanderer while Pegasus becomes the pride of Zeus’s stables.
Two Giant brothers—sons of Poseidon—Otus and Ephialtes also exhibit pride in the face of the gods, as they claim superiority to the gods and manage to kidnap Ares. They also try to kidnap Artemis, who outwits them, tricking them into killing each other with spears.
The son of master inventor Daedalus, Icarus is also prideful. The architect of the Labyrinth of Minos in Crete, Daedalus is imprisoned with his son. He builds wings for their escape but warns Icarus not to fly too high, as the sun will melt the wings. Icarus does not listen: he flies high, his wings melt, and he plummets to his death in the sea.
The story of Jason is the first real epic in Mythology. It follows a common pattern: a hero sets out on an adventure and must pass a number of perils and complete a number of tasks to achieve his goal. Upon returning, they must unseat a usurper and reclaim the throne. This pattern is almost exactly duplicated in the Odyssey and the stories of Aeneas, Theseus, and Hercules.
The bloody and dark story of Jason is somewhat unusual, however, as it gives no clear reason why Jason should be considered a hero. He does nothing remotely heroic in the story, aside from confronting danger without cowardice. The Lemnians unaccountably help the Argonauts, the sons of Boreas drive off the Harpies, and Phineus’s advice helps them surpass the Clashing Rocks. Jason does not really do anything in these adventures, and his next challenges—yoking the bulls, plowing, defeating the armed men, stealing the Fleece, escaping, and killing Pelias—are accomplished by the enamoured Medea, not by Jason. Yet Medea comes off as the villain at story’s end, while Jason is portrayed as her needless victim.
This portrayal of Jason as heroic and Medea as villainous stems from Greek biases against women and “barbaric” foreign civilizations. Though Jason victimizes Medea, as a foreign woman, she is given no sympathy, and is forever portrayed as an evil witch. Indeed, her acts, though performed out of love and devotion, are so shocking and horrible that she cannot possibly be a heroine. This, as we see later, is the case with other mythical figures, such as Tantalus, whose well-intentioned but gruesome acts are punished by the gods.
Indeed, intention is just as meaningless in regards to fate. The crucial theme of humility before fate and the gods resurfaces repeatedly in these stories. Pelias tries to defy fate, wrongly thinking he can avoid death at the hands of the one-sandaled man by killing him. Likewise, Phaëthon, Bellerophon, Otus, Ephialtes, and Icarus warn against the folly of trying to equal the gods. The image of Icarus is the classic symbol of “one who flew too high.” Like the crucial trait of obedience, humility before the gods represents a proper understanding of the order of the universe. Mortals secure their place in the world only by remaining subservient to divine powers.
These chapters also focus on the important virtue of hospitality. The code of hospitality—particularly the idea that once one houses a guest, one cannot harm that guest—might seem foreign to us. Aetes cannot kill Jason outright because he has fed him and housed him: “If these strangers had not eaten at my table I would kill them.” The same obligation binds Proteus to Bellerophon. Though this straightforward social code might seem odd to us today, it was, as we see in the myths, an important part of ancient civilization.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Mythology!